Sunday, February 26, 2017

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1974 - Bobby Bradford with John Stevens & The Spontaneous Music Ensemble

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
Bobby Bradford with John Stevens & The Spontaneous Music Ensemble

101. His Majesty Louis
102. Bridget's Mother
103. Room 408
104. Tolerance/To Bob

201. Trane Ride / Ornette-ment / Doo Dee
202. Norway
203. Rhythm Piece
204. Fragment

Bobby Bradford—trumpet
Trevor Watts—alto & soprano saxophones
Bob Norden—trombone
Julie Tippetts—voice & guitar
Ron Herman—bass
John Stevens—drums, percussion & voice

The music on this album is one of the many results of the daring simplifications which Ornette Coleman achieved for jazz in the late fifties and early sixties. Briefly, he freed the music from its structural dependence on the European harmonic system, placing the emphasis instead on melodic and rhythmic development, and upon collective, rather than solo, improvisation. Specifically, the performers here show the variety of expression this freedom makes possible. True, the horns have not quite purged themselves of harmonic consciousness, and sometimes we can, with hindsight, read a sequence of chords into some of their individual phrases; but nearly always the implications of this are contradicted by what somebody else is playing at the same time. The lack of a harmonic dimension never seems like a restriction, however, because of the music's unflagging contrapuntal richness. Each instrumental line grows partly by reaction to ideas produced by the others, partly by a more or less deliberate motivic development in the manner of Ornette Coleman, and partly by a style of free association which is all this group's own.
The Spontaneous Music Ensemble's roots are obvious from their earlier recordings, but for some years now this group has been pursuing a fruitful path which leads far away from outmoded conventions, and their work is shaped by a perfectly individual method and style. It can be remarkably varied in its sensuous and emotional impact, yet this music establishes its own rules of expression and organization and persuades the attentive listener to accept them.
Here the S. M. E. is heard with a guest, Bobby Bradford, who, with John Carter, leads a comparable group, called the New Art Jazz Ensemble, which has made several recordings of its own on the West Coast of the U.S.A. But almost throughout this session each player's contribution is submerged in the collective personality of the group, this being especially so on Tolerance/ To Bob, which presents a unified texture wherein each line is acutely responsive to the others. Any one instrumental part can be followed for its own sake, yet to listen in that way is to miss a great deal of this music's point. Its melodic and rhythmic emphases shift restlessly throughout, but, although the phrases often are unsparingly discontinuous, the vitality of the whole is such that every detail finds a meaningful place.
His Majesty Louis, a piece by Bobby Bradford, is a tribute to Louis Armstrong, master of an earlier phase of jazz. Here one's overriding impression is of the sheer variety of the music's gesture. The ensemble is king, the lines closely related and quickly responsive to each other, but a regular jazz pulse soon establishes itself. This appears to impart a degree of security to the performers, and their ideas become more adventurous, more immediately striking. Yet still they are accommodated within the ensemble and there are no real solos. At one point Bradford is briefly heard with only Ron Herman's support, but John Stevens before long adds so detailed and enhancing a commentary that it seems reasonable to ask who is accompanying whom. Quite often as in a New Orleans jazz ensemble, the line produced by one player has greater importance than the rest, yet this lead readily changes hands, the situation remaining forever fluid, its stresses shifting as in an intense conversation where new ideas are constantly minted. Even later, when the tempo slackens, the musical argument on this remains as cogent as before.
On Bridget's Mothemo single participant dominates, but the whole is quite positively coloured by the presence of Julie Tippetts's voice. This piece is an especially good illustration of the extent to which contrapuntal diversity compensates for the music's lack of a harmonic plane. There is a seeming paradox, also, in the fact that this track has the effect of a mournful dirge, the discontinuity of its phrases and textures notwithstanding.
Room 408, again by Bobby Bradford, is more hard-boiled, its lines of stronger sinew, the ideas more closely packed. Yet even in this hectic atmosphere, although the performance is largely activated by John Stevens's drums, Bobby Bradford, Trevor Watts and Bob Norden all project distinct personalities throughout. Indeed, there is another apparent paradox in the fact that each seems to become more himself, more individual, through surrender to, and participation in, the voice of the ensemble. Just as in His Majesty Louis where the speed decreases without the music's substance growing diffuse, so here in Room 408 the texture of the collective improvisation latterly becomes less dense without any loss of expressive point.
[The next performance] is based on two John Stevens themes, Tolerance and To Bob. The beginning is free, purer, almost timeless, and quite often this music is more oblique in its impact. Again, though, the colour, texture, volume and density of the heterophonic sound-mass alters slowly but constantly, the instrumental lines sometimes herding close together, at other points drifting far apart. Here and there it sounds as if the music were about to run down, yet repeatedly it gathers new strength and sets off in a fresh direction. Some of these new starts are simple, almost formal, but gradually the music boils up into highly detailed group improvisations of impressive textural complexity. Such a performance, in fact, is a good instance of the variety of expression which the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's method can encompass, for each climax, or point of highest intensity, is arrived at by a different route from the others. Indeed, the technique of collective improvisation is the whole raison d'etre of the music.
In the end the generating tension of the music is spent and, once more, evaporates. The texture clears, the instrumental lines become more distinct, more sharply separated. Now the phrases are no longer broken off, or contradicted by others, and this music's innate lyricism flowers at last. Yet despite such a relaxation the musical argument remains pointed until the last, and these performances prove that individual freedom can paradoxically lead to collective discipline. And vice versa.
Trane Ride is, of course, a tribute to John Coltrane—without any attempt to duplicate his style of playing—and its punning title evidently stimulated a slightly onomatopoeic beginning. Yet the main thing is the musical conversation between Trevor Watts and Bobby Bradford, each pursuing a quite different type of phrase-structure from the other but their two lines fitting together excellently, the seeming contradictions reconciled by the unflagging momentum of the whole. This is linked with two other themes by John Stevens, Ornette-ment, a salute to another great American jazz musician, Ornette Coleman, and Doo Dee. In the latter part of this collective improvisation the threads are drawn tighter as the trumpet and saxophone lines become more enmeshed in the furious commentary of bass and drums, which by now have abandoned their opening train rhythms. By this point, in fact, John Stevens is playing a leading role and in response Bobby Bradford produces phrases which are more static, more fanfare-like, while Trevor Watts, now on soprano saxophone, attains still greater mobility than before. Such a performance appears to be self-generating, to create energy as it unfolds, yet finally all tension evaporates and the music dies in fugitive murmurings which in themselves imply a fresh start.
At first, Norway, a theme by John Stevens, is simple and songlike; the melody is played, with a seemingly casual togetherness, by the horns and voice, underscored by the bass. Slowly, while the mood remains lyrical, the texture grows more complex, its lines separating and going their own ways. Yet despite this independence, they remain closely related in feeling and in musical invention. The brief Fragment, with its brooding, valedictory air is in the same lyrical climate of Norway, yet there are noticeable differences, the melodic lines being longer, simpler, more pithy in content.
Record buyers who have found themselves sympathetic to the jazz of the sixties and seventies should find this music rewarding but not too difficult. Much of its character derives from what may be called the depth of its sound, this, as the foregoing paragraphs should have made clear, being made up of several restlessly mobile parts. This constant shifting of melodic and rhythmic emphasis, the kaleidoscopic rearrangement of always-new aural patterns, lends each piece a many-sided expressiveness no matter how well defined its prevailing mood. To get the best out of this music, therefore, a listener needs to be constantly attentive, but in return for such application each of these performances will give ample satisfaction.

Max Harrison

These notes were written, in the early '70s, for two proposed records on the Freedom label, only one of which was issued. I have combined the two with slight editing to remove references to a different program sequence. The recording of Rhythm Piece was being held for a different coupling and is not mentioned.

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